To be an elder statesman in a sport so comparatively young as mountain biking is some achievement, but Chris Smith is not the kind to look backwards. He has graced more magazine covers than the young guns can dream of, but his sights are fixed firmly on the future.
With two young children and a new, Endura-supported film project - Hidden Playgrounds - to focus on, Smith has little time to reflect on the adrenaline highs or injury-enforced lows that have marked a professional career approaching 20 years.
“It was like facing a head-on collision in a car at 80mph and missing it by millimetres. That’s how certain I am that it would have killed me.”
Smith is now a man of responsibilities - five-year-old Riley and 11-month-old Cody see to that - but there is no trace of hesitation as he drops in to a sheer wall of shale at the Bings, an idiosyncratic landscape fashioned from the spoil of the now-defunct paraffin industry in West Lothian, a short drive from Endura’s Livingston headquarters.
Only Endura’s helmet and pads give any indication of his concern for safety. No drop-off strikes him as too steep, and he passes up no opportunity to get airborne. Having found a playground, Smith is happy to play.
Martin Steele, Endura's events and social media man, is, in the loosest sense, directing operations. A Scot, mountain biker and cyclo-cross racer, Steele has gained a knowledge of the best riding spots from years of experience. He has suggested the Bings as a location for Hidden Playgrounds, and watches calmly as Smith, with equal calmness, makes light work of its most demanding aspects.
To say that this is all in day’s work for Smith is merely to state a fact. He has seen or done most things on a mountain bike in the last two decades, including surviving near-death incidents that have left him with mental scars, as well as physical. His commitment to pushing boundaries, even with the responsibility of providing for a young family, says much for his renegade spirit.
“It was like facing a head-on collision in a car at 80mph and missing it by millimetres. That’s the only way I can describe it. That’s how certain I am that it would have killed me.”
Smith is a laid back character (how could he be otherwise, given his occupation?) but his tone is now unmistakably serious. There is something about failing to clear a 50ft gap jump, fracturing three vertebrae and snapping an ankle with such force that it must be pinned in four places, that will darken even the sunniest outlook.
“When I go back to where I crashed, it scares me. Mentally, it would push me to overcome that. It was as close to dying as I can imagine.”
Smith has moved on, and put this fierce reminder of his own mortality behind him. Almost. He returns occasionally to the site of his worst accident, at Harnham, near Salisbury, and wonders what might have been. More occasionally still, he wonders what might be, were he to make another attempt.
“When I go back there, it scares me. To do it again wouldn’t be outside of my physical capabilities on a bike, but mentally, it would push me to overcome that. It was as close to dying as I can imagine.”
From Smith, such an admission is startling. He shares an attitude to risk with Monty Python’s Black Knight, even using the phrase “flesh wound” when listing a catalogue of injuries that might keep an entire A&E unit in business. A broken arm, he concludes bluntly, is not a life-changing injury.
Steve Geall moved to town while Smith, then in his late teens, was still absorbing the shock of redundancy. With hindsight, the appearance of one mountain bike legend in the life of another seems like destiny, but Smith, then still unknown, wasted little time idly contemplating cosmic forces.
“We pushed each other every day,” he recalls. “Steve was winding down, and pushed me up to his level. He had contacts and got me access to the magazines. One of them was Mountain Biking UK, when Tym Manley was editor.”
“BMX has always seemed a young person’s sport, but mountain biking covers everyone from teenaged kids to the 50-year-olds still riding.”
Smith quickly became Manley’s ‘go to’ cover star. His nerveless riding and impressive versatility won him cover after cover. Smith became the face of MBUK in the early 2000s, while MBUK was becoming the face of a new and exciting sport.
Twenty years later, Smith is convinced that mountain biking is in a good place. He remembers the early days as exciting times, with the sport branching out in any number of directions, from DH to dirt jumps. More recently, the rise and rise of the trail bike - an adaptable machine with enjoyment as its raison d’etre - suggests a new convergence among the many and varied niches.
“It’s in an exciting spot,” Smith says of a sport that has been almost his entire life for two decades. “It’s reached a really good point; on the technical side, too.”
While it’s hard to categorise a rider so versatile as Smith, it wouldn’t be wide of the mark to describe him as a freerider, first and foremost. He believes mountain bikers who push the limits, of any age, have reclaimed ground from BMX.
“I see the extreme side of mountain biking surpassing BMX and taking it to higher levels, especially in the size of the jumps. BMX has always seemed a young person’s sport, but mountain biking covers everyone from teenaged kids to the 50-year-olds still riding.”
“I see the extreme side of mountain biking surpassing BMX and taking it to higher levels, especially in the size of the jumps.”
Smith has never had a problem with taking things to higher levels, even if now his first priority is coming home in the evening relatively unscathed. As soon as the helmet goes on, he is focussed entirely on the task at hand.
He praises the trail bike for its versatility, but it is not only evolving bike technology that has changed Smith’s job. Social media is a vital tool for a rider dependent on the support of sponsors, and apps like Google Maps allow him to research new riding locations from the comfort of his own home.
Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Images, Urban Exploration…Smith jokes that he has visited every interesting feature within a 30-mile radius of his house, but his riding exploits have taken him to the other side of the world.
His visit to the Bings ends with a detour to the Forth Bridge, where Steele shows him a series of locations once used for WWII gun emplacements. Smith unpacks another piece of new technology, the like of which would have been unimaginable when first started riding - a drone.
Back at Endura HQ, Smith examines the footage with a smile. Another Hidden Playground is taking shape. There are worse ways to earn a living, he admits, even though few carry greater risk.
Smith must now balance a natural disdain for fear with the responsibilities of parenthood. Endura could have no better standard bearer for its protection products, even if the man who is their ‘face’ will hope never to test their full capability.